Shao Lin was haunted by the memory,
of the bitter winter when she had dug a shallow grave for the baby. A rare
cold front had descended from Mongolia and turned the sky that day as cold
and leaden as her soul. She’d scratched through the snow and pawed at the
frozen earth until her fingers bled. Hot tears mingled with her blood. The
hole was soon big enough, because the bundle was so small.
A girl, it was. Xiao xi: A small
But there was no happiness at all. With
permission for only one child, the child must not be a girl. A woman came
into the world to bear sons, not daughters. Sons to carry on the family
name. Sons to inherit the family’s possessions. Sons to support parents in
old age, and then to sweep their graves. Daughters married away,
worthless. For a hundred generations it had been so.
“So you are your mother’s daughter after
all,” her husband raged when she called out to him that his first-born was a
girl. “You are cursed!” It was true. Her mother had borne four girls and
no boys. Her mother’s mother had six children—all girls. He had worried
the affliction ran in her family.
The face of her mother-in-law was grim as
she took the baby. “I will do it,” she told Shao Lin. But she had not had
to do a thing. The baby made it easy. There was something in her throat,
something in the way—mucous, perhaps, and she wasn’t breathing right. She
was choking and needed a slap. The mother-in-law set her down and turned
away. The baby went blue and stopped struggling.
Afterward Shao Lin trudged through frozen
fields to the hilltop where her husband’s great-grandfather was buried
beneath a rubble of stone. It was no longer permitted to bury the dead in
the ground. Land was too valuable. She should have set the body in the
Yangtze, where it would slip away to the sea. But she didn’t care about
that. She’d done enough that day for her family. She’d done enough that
day for China. She’d done enough that day for a lifetime.
There was another memory. Another
permission from the government, long-awaited, when for a time they stopped
tracking her periods on the chalkboard in the village. Another baby was
being allowed into the district.
This time her husband wanted to know.
They took savings from the box beneath the bed. She traveled all the way to
Jiangyin on the back of a cart to see the doctor. He had an ultrasound
machine. Everyone used them now, said the old women of the village.
Ultrasounds could find girl babies before they were born, and then the easy
thing could be done. They made her drink water until she was near bursting
and then helped her onto a cold steel table. The doctor rubbed her belly
with jelly and pressed a cup to her skin. She strained to see the gray mass
moving about on the little black-and-white screen. After a time the doctor
nodded and pointed at something.
Shao Lin saw only a smudge. The doctor
said the smudge was a girl.
She had an abortion while her husband
waited in the hallway outside. She closed her eyes to the cold steel and
the doctor’s rough hands and told herself it was the best thing.
But the ultrasound fooled the doctor. The
dead child was a boy.
Her husband went crazy with grief and
anger. He left without her, left her alone on the table. For a whole week
her mother-in-law wouldn’t let her into the house, so she slept in the straw
near the sun-warmed mud walls outside, next to the goats and the sheep.
The next time she left home, to
have the baby alone. The child was born in an orange grove beneath a bright
sun, and cried loudly through strong lungs. When Shao Lin saw it was
another girl she thought about killing herself with the knife she’d used for
the cord. It seemed the only way. She couldn’t let the child destroy their
family, their lives. She couldn’t keep it and she couldn’t kill it. If she
abandoned it she might spend years in prison.
Shao Lin thought of her cousin, in Suzhou.
She was shunned by the family, rumored to be a woman who knew the night
streets. To Shao Lin it didn’t matter. She needed help and there was
nowhere else to turn.
She wrapped the child in warm blankets and
walked down the path to the big road, where a farmer gave her a ride on the
back of his wagon. He smiled broadly at the child. “A blessing,” he said.
As they bounced along country roads, the baby fed at her breast and then
slept. Shao Lin saw she was beautiful but tried not to look at her face
because it was too difficult to look away again. She covered the child and
stared dully out at the passing cabbage fields. She spent the night at
Shengang town and caught a bus the next morning.
Suzhou was crowded, everything fast and
frightening. She had an address. She hunched over as she wandered the
streets, trying to hide her baby—her crime—from view. Whenever she saw a
policeman she turned away, terrified that somehow he might see into her
heart and know her intentions. But no one stopped her. No one challenged
her. Finally a shopkeeper pointed the way.
Her cousin was a weary, kind woman who was
surprised and pleased to see her. If she was a whore, Shao Lin saw no sign
of it. The woman listened sympathetically as Shao Lin unburdened herself.
“I do know a man,” she said.
He arrived that afternoon. His face was
fleshy and pock-marked. He wore a baggy western suit and smelled of fish.
Shao Lin instinctively disliked him. When he stripped the child naked, to
examine her, Shao Lin’s resolve nearly collapsed. She reached for the
child, but her cousin restrained her. “There is no choice better than this
one,” she whispered. The man looked up. “I’ll go if you want,” he said.
“But if you leave her on the steps of the hospital, we’ll get her anyway.
This way there’s something in it for you.”
“What will happen to her?”
“She’ll live,” he said simply.
Satisfied with the child, the man wrapped
her once again in blankets. He did it quickly, without tenderness. He took
a wad of bills from his pocket and peeled off a few. He thrust them at Shao
Lin. Without thinking she started to reach for them, then faltered,
horrified and ashamed. He tossed the bills onto the floor at her feet. He
grunted a goodbye to Shao Lin’s cousin. As he opened the door a lusty wail
erupted from the blanket. He paid no attention. The door closed behind
him. Sobbing uncontrollably, Shao Lin slumped to the floor. Her cousin
picked up the bills and put them in a drawer.
Shao Lin sat on the floor until dusk.
Several times she retched, needing to throw up, but nothing would come. She
declined her cousin’s offer for a meal and a night’s rest.
When she was strong enough she stood up.
She fled from the house and into the night.
That night a phone rang at a walled
compound outside Suzhou.
“I have another one,” said the man with
the pockmarked face. “Off the books.”
“This one is perfect. Only two days old.
Healthy and well-formed. Her mother was exquisite.”
“I…I want more for this one.”
There was a long silence on the line. “We
shall see. Bring her to me.”
Shao Lin lied to her husband and to the
population control officer, saying the baby died in childbirth. Her husband
returned to his fields. The population control officer asked no questions
because she didn’t care about the answers.
No baby meant the quotas were safe.
The People’s Republic of China
t began the way it always had in her
nightmare, the very same way it had begun once before. There was a knock at
Allison Turk barely stirred in her bed. Even
five days after arriving in China her jet lag still had not eased. Her body
was completely mixed up, and now she was lost in the deep sleep of
exhaustion. Then the baby gave a little cry and Allison startled awake
instantly. She blinked and tried to clear her head. Had she heard
something before Wen Li’s cry? The room was dark, the curtains drawn.
It had been a difficult night. She’d tried
to cut the baby’s fingernails and clipped a bit of skin right off her
finger. Wen Li bled but it was Allison who cried, feeling stupid and
clumsy, and despairing of ever being a good mother. And then as they sat on
the bathroom floor while Allison tried to bandage the wound, which wasn’t
much but seemed awful to her fearful eyes, Wen Li had toppled off her lap
and banged her head on the tub, and then they were both hurt and crying. To
top it off, Wen Li had then developed a fever and rash and spent a restless
few hours. The fever had broken quickly, but even so Allison had been up
every twenty minutes to make sure she was still all right, still breathing.
It was three o’clock before she drifted off to a fitful sleep.
The knock came again. More quickly now.
Allison threw back her covers and sat up.
The blanket in the crib was bunched up and she could only just see a tuft of
dark hair and a tiny bare arm wrapped around Pooh. Wen Li hadn’t let loose
of the bear since they’d met. Allison watched until the blanket moved,
almost imperceptibly. In the other twin bed Tyler slept the sleep of the
dead in the way only a nine year old could. It would take more of an
earthquake than a knock at the door to wake him before ten.
She put on her bathrobe and crossed the room,
reaching for the knob just as the knocking began again. She opened the door
and pulled her bathrobe tighter. It was Nash Cameron, another of the
parents in her group who had come to adopt a baby. He was abrupt and
pushy. He treated his wife Claire with coldness and even his new daughter
Katie with seeming indifference. He offered no greeting and didn’t wait for
her to say anything.
“There’s a problem. It could be bad. We’re
meeting in my room.”
Allison blinked, trying to wake up. “What?
What do you mean? Meeting? What kind of—” But he cut her off, turning
abruptly and darting back down the hall, calling over his shoulder, urgency
in his voice. “Hurry up!” He moved quickly in the dim hallway. He stopped
at Ruth Pollard’s room and knocked again. Ruth was another of the new
adoptive parents. Her baby was beautiful, tiny and frail. Her name was
Tai. Ruth called her the Wee Duck.
Allison closed the door and felt the first
stirrings of dread. From the beginning she had worried something would go
wrong. So many things could happen, just as they had before…. She forced
the thought away. She hurriedly pulled on her jogging clothes, wondering
whether to wake Tyler and Wen Li and bring them along. She’d never left
them alone. She glanced at her watch. Just past seven. The Camerons’ room
was next door. She decided to let the children sleep. She wrote a quick
note for Tyler telling him where she’d be and propped it on the little
At the sink she washed the sleep out of her
eyes and brushed her hair. She regarded herself in the mirror. Dark
circles under her eyes showed the strain of travel. Her face was puffy.
She looked awful. Too many jets, too many bus rides, too much stress. She
shrugged. There was nothing she could do about it. She could regain
herself when she got back to Denver, when Marshall would be there to help.
She closed the door softly behind her,
slipping the plastic card that was the electronic room key into her pocket.
The Chinese had surprised her with their modern hotels. She’d expected
something more like skeleton keys. There was much about China that
The door to the Camerons’ room was ajar.
Allison knocked lightly and walked in. The little room was full to
overflowing with the five other American families who had come to adopt
Chinese children. They had traveled together for much of the trip from the
States, visiting the same orphanage to pick up their babies. Through a
numbing blur of endless days they had shared airlines and cramped bus seats
and diapers and teething stories and tips about Chinese microbes. Most were
not friends but forced fellow-travelers, making the best of their company
and now counting the days until they could return to the States and begin
their own private lives with their babies.
Claire Cameron sat on a chair next to the
crib where her new daughter Katie slept. She was a quiet woman, dominated
completely by her husband. When she spoke it was to complain about the
hotel, the streets, the markets, and the fact that so few Chinese had the
good manners to speak English. She’d been crying. Ruth Pollard sat on the
bed holding her daughter Tai, who was still asleep. Ruth was a single
mother who had made the trip to China alone, just as she intended to raise
Tai alone. It took guts and stamina and a certain lunacy to do that, and
Allison liked her. Next to Ruth sat Wally and Ruthann Jackson. Allison
knew them as Bible thumpers from Montana, harmless enough but annoying with
their constant preaching, especially when they tried it on the Chinese, who
responded with strained politeness. Barry and Ceil Levin were Amway
distributors from Minnesota who said little and kept to themselves. Roger
and Cindy Lawton were ranchers from east Texas. He was a bigot and a bore
whose venom never ran dry.
The tension in the room was palpable, its
occupants tired and fearful at the abrupt summons. Nash closed the door
behind Allison, then faced the group.
“Yi Ling called me twenty minutes ago and
asked that I get us all together,” he said. Yi Ling was their Chinese
interpreter and guide. She’d been with them every step of the way, first
meeting them at the airport, then translating and negotiating and helping
them in a country where they couldn’t find a bathroom without assistance.
She’d been superb. “The director of the orphanage called her late last
night. He was meeting with an official from the province. I didn’t
understand who the official was, exactly. Someone from the Ministry of
Civil Affairs, I think. Anyway, he told her a mistake had been made with
The room erupted, everyone talking at once.
“What do you mean a mistake? Another damned screw-up? What kind of
mistake this time?” asked Roger Lawton. Nash waved his hand impatiently,
dismissing questions for which he had no answers.
“I’m not certain. Something to do with
special needs families getting healthy babies.”
Allison caught her breath at that. It was
true, one of the regulations of the Chinese government. She had expected a
child with some sort of handicap—a heart murmur, a hernia, or simply an
older child, a toddler—something besides a healthy infant. Under Chinese
law adoptive parents had to be at least thirty-five and have no other
children in order to qualify for healthy babies. Otherwise they qualified
only for the special needs children. But the rule was loose and there were
so many babies needing adoption that somehow everyone in their group had
gotten a healthy infant. Of course no one questioned it and the issue
hadn’t arisen during their trip.
The Chinese had sent Wen Li’s medical report
to Allison and Marshall six weeks earlier, along with a tiny snapshot of a
bewildered-looking infant. It was all Allison had to go on then, all she
had to know her new baby. She and Marshall had had to make their decision
to adopt on the basis of just the photo and the one-page typewritten
report. Allison had made dozens of blowups of the photograph and shipped
them excitedly to everyone she knew. She read the report a hundred times.
Height: 60 cm. Weight: 5.9 kg. Eyes, ears, throat: normal. Teeth:
none. Lip and palate: normal. Heart, lung, kidney and spleen….
On it went in dry style, ticking off the
particulars of a 13-pound Chinese mystery. The report was five months old
but she read it in bed at night with Marshall, trying to paint flesh and
blood and character onto the dispassionate report with the brush of her
imagination. She showed it to her pediatrician, who pronounced everything
fine—“on the surface,” he said. Then she worried about what the Chinese
doctor had missed. She’d heard the exams were so superficial that the baby
might be retarded or deaf and they wouldn’t notice.
It was a crap shoot, adopting a baby made
from someone else’s genes, and it worried her sick. “It’s a crap shoot
giving birth to a baby made from your own genes,” Marshall reminded her.
She fretted and paced and dreamed and hoped.
She looked at the photograph for hours. She
talked to it, sharing family secrets. She stared at it at night, where it
was propped by her alarm. She smiled at it in the morning, at the baby
peeking from her perch beneath the refrigerator magnet. She hummed to it
from the shower, where she could see the child looking innocently back from
her niche on the bathroom mirror. From each angle Allison saw something new
in her features. At night the child looked pensive. In the morning she
looked afraid. There was charm and personality in her face and quick wit in
her eyes. She imagined the baby’s history a hundred ways. Had she been
loved or abused? At an orphanage or with a foster family? Was she from a
farm or a city? What was her mother like? Had her ankles been branded so
that her birth mother might identify her someday, as she heard was so
A thousand questions raced in her mind,
questions for which there would never be answers. A thousand doubts crowded
in as well. She worried that she wouldn’t love the baby, or that the baby
wouldn’t love her. She worried that she wouldn’t be a good mother, that the
baby might need something and she wouldn’t realize it and the child would go
on wanting, deprived, saddled with a mother who couldn’t read the signs of
need because she wasn’t of her own flesh and blood. Crazy worries,
irrational worries, stubborn worries that wouldn’t let go. She worried too
about Tyler, about how a nine year old would react to losing center stage,
and she worried about Marshall. Was this her dream, more than his?
Was it her need, more than his, to adopt? Was she selfish to want a
child? Upsetting a wonderful family in order to do it?
Over the weeks she fell in love with the
child in the photograph but never framed it, because somehow a frame was
permanent, and until it was all settled she knew nothing was permanent.
She’d made that mistake before, decorating a nursery for an expected baby,
then suffering the empty room when the baby died. She’d made the same
mistake a second time, thinking a baby was hers before it really was, and
then losing her too. A frame was the same thing.
Then had come the long trip to China and the
anxious ride to the orphanage, and the electric moment when the auntie held
up the little bundle. Trembling, Allison pulled back the blankets. Wen Li
had dark hair, thick and wild like it had been freeze-dried in some bizarre
poked-out pincushion fashion. Combing didn’t help; the hair was short and
popped back up, spring-loaded. She had great dark oval eyes, so soft and
liquid Allison felt she could go swimming in them, eyes that were alive and
curious and held all the intelligence and spirit she had prayed for.
Then came the careful count of fingers, and
at the very first possible moment, with Tyler helping her in their hotel
room, Allison had stripped her down for a bath. She was shaking in
excitement, nervous and full of wonder and hope and dread at the squirming
child. Everything was normal and pink and there, as she’d so
desperately hoped it would be. The knees and elbows all worked, and while
Wen Li was being poked and prodded she peed all over Allison and flashed a
wicked grin. Tyler laughed and Allison’s heart melted instantly: she had a
healthy nine-month-old with a sense of humor and without so much as a cold.
She blessed her luck and held her child and felt a fool for worrying.
While waiting for papers they’d spent four
wonderful days together in the hotel. Allison began to learn to read those
little eyes that flashed want or showed need, eyes that laughed or demanded,
eyes that could be angry or content, hurt or just sleepy. Every so often
Wen Li would do her hooker blink, a slow, sexy, luxuriant blink, as if she’d
been taught to do it in some high-end brothel and it was the most natural
thing in the world, and it made Allison laugh out loud.
On the third day Tyler propped her up between
pillows, announcing he was going to teach her to sit up. He gave her
careful instructions in English, and then let go. Wen Li gamely held her
position for an instant, then crumpled like a sock. After a few tries she
got too close to the edge of the bed, and tumbled off. Allison caught her
in mid-air, swooping her up just in time. Wen Li shrieked in wild delight
through her five-and-a-half teeth. Their eyes met and their souls touched
somewhere, and in that instant they knew it was perfect.
Marshall was a fly fisherman, and usually he
threw everything back. Sometimes, though, he’d hook one that he couldn’t
give up, a fish he just had to bring home. A keeper, he’d call it.
Allison knew that’s what she had, too: an
undersized, wild-haired, can’t-sit-up keeper.
The orphanage had named her Wen Li. Allison
and Marshall liked it and added Maria. Wen Li Maria Turk. One-time orphan
of China, future American citizen.
Only now perfection was a problem.